The most well-known myth of Theseus tells how he slayed the Bull of Minos and became King of Athens, but it is not the only important story to feature his name.
There is another tale—told for literal millennia by everyone from Plato to Marvel Studios—that tells of the great ship upon which Theseus departed the island of Crete after defeating the minotaur, and its many years of service after.
Even great ships break down, and planks that were weathered, worn, or rotten had to be replaced over time. New oars were needed, too, when the old ones were broken or pulled overboard by heavy waves. When the sails wore thin, fresh ones were hung in their place.
After some years time, not a single original plank, oar, or sail was left of Theseus’ ship. Every one of its pieces had been replaced with a new one—some, many times over!
Which raises a funny question: if nothing remains of Theseus’ original ship, is it still the ship of Theseus? Or is it something else?
This thought experiment has been talked about and puzzled over for more than 2000 years. And while the solution to the riddle of the Ship of Theseus is simple, it requires a brave person to understand it.
The truth is, the new planks, oars, and sails are not the Ship of Theseus—and the old ones weren’t either.
A ship is not the wood in its hull or the cloth in its sails. A ship is the places it’s been and yet may go; it is the trials passed and those not yet faced. The oar that was lost does not define a ship, but the great storm that pulled it overboard is forever etched into the memories of the sailors. A ship is every sunrise its crew has ever gazed upon, and every harbor where they’ve rested. It is the hard work, lofty hopes and iron-clad companionship of those that served and sailed upon it.
A ship is not made of pieces. It is made of stories.
People are like ships in this way.
Our bodies change and grow always. Our cells die, and new ones are reborn every second of every day. A 10-year old child has not one single atom left in their bodies from when their life began; it’s all new—much of it replaced many times over. This process never ends.
And in all that time, and in all the time stretching on into a person’s future, that person lives. They learn things about themselves and the world around them. They work, and struggle. They love people, and receive love from others. They are afraid, and make endless mistakes. All great stories begin with mistakes.
All of this: the lessons, passions, missteps and discoveries are a person.
No single story, alone, however, is enough to be called a person. Theseus’ ship is not only the voyage home from Crete, after all. It is the great saga of all its adventures that makes it what it is.
A person, too, is all of their stories, and all the stories that have not yet been told. Not one, not two, not a thousand stories will ever be enough to define a person.
We are not here to be defined. We are here to take up an oar, face the horizon and, whether toward safe harbor or storm, sail on.
The next story is waiting.